This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
A lot of people need their student grant to get them through university. Without it, they wouldn't be able to pay for baked potatoes and Kraft singles, or mephedrone, or their rent. Whatever you spend it on, a maintenance loan is a vital part of the university experience—and one you'll be reminded of for years to come, as you watch SLC remove chunks of your pay packet every month.
Brooke Purvis, a mature student at London art school Central Saint Martins, wants us to take a step back and assess all this. To ask how important money really is.
To do this, he's going to burn the money from his student grant. All of it. His project, Everything Burns, seeks to ask questions about the nature of money and what we really gain from it. I chatted to him about the project, the concept of money, and whether he's really going to burn it all.
VICE: Hi Brooke. How did the concept for Everything Burns come about?
Brooke Purvis: Everything Burns has been an idea I've been toying with for the past few years. The idea that in today's society a person who wants to better themselves has to undertake a huge amount of debt seems unfathomable. And after researching more into the institutions of society, it finally became something I became less nervous of doing.
How does the burning of money illustrate that?
Let's firstly take a look at what money is. Money represents freedom and comfort to mostly everyone. It's the one thing that most aspire to obtain in life. You give up your very liberty and time in exchange for pieces of paper that actually have no financial worth. Money—in the UK, at least—holds absolutely no value whatsoever, other than that which you place upon it.
Now, when we look at a bank note in the UK, it suggests that you can exchange whatever the note's worth is for the sum of whatever that note is worth. It's an IOU. So we have a fiat currency not based on anything substantial, which means governments can easily manipulate it for their own means and that banks can create it out of nothing.
So, for me, when I realized that money is simply a fiction and a fixation of the mind and that people need a material object to understand something's existence, my own reality had been altered. Therefore, burning money would be a release from the bondages that society and our own minds have placed upon us all.
But what will burning it really achieve? Couldn't you give that money to charity or do something positive with it?
I could give that money to charity, but charity is capitalism's solution to the problem it creates. But it's my money, remembering it's a fiction, and like anyone, I choose to do what I want with it. Also, I believe I am doing something positive with it. The work I'm creating highlights what I believe to be very important issues.
What will Everything Burns actually involve?
Well, the artwork is what can be seen as a conceptual piece. It's more to do with the semantic rather than the spectacle. Fundamentally, myself and another person, as witness, will take the time to destroy, by fire, my student loan. It will be documented by photography and film, the ashes collected for further documentation and possibly further display. It will not be a performance piece as such, in that there will be no live audience.
How much of your loan will be burnt?
The entirety of what is available to me.
Do you feel you're freeing yourself from your student loan by burning it?
On one hand, no. Tell me one person that would consider themselves logically free from the torments of money, debt, and pursuit of happiness. But on the other hand, you have to remember it's all a fiction, and it only becomes real if you choose to see it as real.
Are you comfortable financially?
I'm working practically full-time, alongside studying full-time, to cover the rent for the over-exaggerated rent prices of living in a mouse-infested house with 11 other people sharing the same bathroom on the outskirts of London. Just so I can then study at uni to effectively allow myself a better chance at getting a better job. I personally don't believe that I've ever experienced a comfortable life without fear of not making a rent payment or having enough for food or some maniacal person demanding something from me.
How are you going to survive without your student grant?
I can only imagine that it'll be extremely hard to survive without my student grant. Let's not forget a few factors, though. Firstly, it's all a state of mind. We discussed earlier how money is a fiction, and that this is also taking place around the same time that I finish at uni, meaning that if there's an emergency and I need to dip into my student loan, then I can, as anyone would be expected to.
What have been the reactions of the people around you to the project?
I haven't really discussed this with anyone as such. What I can imagine, though, is that they might think it's a juvenile stunt typical of a leftist view of the state. But compared to the stunts the right-wing fraternity are performing right now, this is nothing. And in this day and age, how do you get people interested in a subject that's important? There's so much background noise that the only way to make people look up and pay attention is to perform a shocking and outrageous stunt. That in itself is something I'm addressing: why is it that people are so bored in life that the only way to grab someone's attention is to do something like this? What are our modern day values? Shock value? Have these values really only been reduced to something as banal as this?